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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
The Avatar Project
How Virtual Reality is Ken Wilber's Subtle Realm Incarnated
The Astral Plane Has Descended To Terra Firma
Though I am the first to admit that a meditative experience is different than a VR one, there is no question that they mirror each other in a number of ways.
Twenty-two years ago when I was teaching at the University of London in the semester abroad program, my sister Kim and I got a chance to try out a virtual reality headset. We were in Leicester square at a futuristic arcade and hoping to be mesmerized by promises of a new fangled technology. But alas to no avail. We thought VR sucked, as it was so rudimentary as to be almost laughably bad.
For the next two decades, I gave scant attention to the evolution of virtual reality hardware. However, when I was teaching at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), I heard rumors about a student who had somehow figured out the trick to developing a VR headset that even in its beta testing iteration was mind blowing.
I have tended to be a first adopter of all things technological so I did more research and talked extensively to my oldest son Shaun, who is a full-fledged computer geek. We discussed the start-up Oculus Rift, as invented by Palmer Luckey (the former CSULB student), and other prototypical devices being developed by the HTC Vive, which was my son’s favored choice. But though I knew theoretically that such technology would be transformative I hadn’t experienced it directly and thus was not yet a convert.
All that changed, however, the day I tried Google Cardboard, a surprisingly simple, hard paper construction that looks at first glance as if it was made on the fly. As I put on the relatively cheap contraption I was ready to be disappointed. But instead I felt like St. Paul on the way to Damascus. I was shocked as I was teleported to another realm. Even though I knew Google Cardboard (which uses your smart phone as its fundamental hardware) was still a very primitive device, I immediately realized that the future I dreamt about decades ago had arrived and that it was only going to get better, much better.
The implications of VR are more profound than we might at first suspect. Ironically, Ken Wilber, the controversial New Age philosopher, may be one of our best future theorists when it comes to all things virtual, even if we must ground his spiritually saturated cosmology down to terra firma.
In an earlier article Ken Wilber Was Right, the Next Stage is Psychic, I wrote,
“Wilber has postulated that we have undergone a series of holonic adaptations—from magical to mythic to rational--in our history. The next stage according to Wilber will be the "psychic" level. Ironically, what Wilber envisioned (a network of logical understanding that supervenes mere logic or rationality.... a sort of meta-thinking) is already obvious via the Internet and the Web.”
Wilber was spot-on, except that he didn’t envision the psychic realm as being generated by the nuts and bolts of routers, cables, serves, computers, engineered software programming, etc., but had postulated something a bit more ethereal.
In other words, Ken Wilber’s model was correct in its insight, but wholly missing in its mechanics.
In Wilber’s hierarchical schema, the next level beyond “psychic” is what he refers to as the subtle realm. As he explains in his early books this a state of consciousness where all sorts of fantastic visions of light and sound occur and where the mind can be enveloped into astral realms.
Later in a 2007 position paper on the subject, Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies, Wilber elucidates that,
“Accordingly, as this Awakening process begins and starts to mature, this Wakefulness increasingly pervades all aspects of the waking state and begins to spill over into the dream state, rescuing them both from a half-asleep fog. As one then enters the dream state, one begins to lucid dream—to remain conscious where the average person passes out or goes blank. What happens is that the dream state is being converted from unconscious to conscious, and thus it begins to yield all of its visionary, archetypal, subtle revelations. Moreover—and just as important—because you have made the dream state conscious to some degree, you have started to transcend it—it has ceased to enslave you; it is now object, not subject; you now embrace your dreams, they don’t embrace you."
Wilber’s wording in the last sentence is both instructive and revealing, “you now embrace your dreams, they don’t embrace you.”
While I don’t think Wilber had VR headsets in mind when he postulated his subtle realm theory of consciousness (where dreams become conscious to an awakened psyche), the parallels between the two are unmistakable.
In the mystical literature on the subject, accessing the subtle realms usually entails deep meditation, which primarily includes sitting very still for long stretches of time and concentrating on inner lights and sounds until one consciously enters in the awakened state.
In virtual reality, the neophyte simply dons a headset and turns on the preset program and then in a second or two finds himself or herself completely encased in a 3-D wonderland.
The former is achieved by dint of one’s concentration, whereas the latter is accomplished by some remarkable feats of hardware and software engineering. Yet, both resemble each other in truly remarkable ways: from feelings of being out of the body to scintillating lights shows, to adventures across spatial landscapes.
I, myself, have been a lifelong meditator and have practiced shabd yoga for over 40 years and though I am the first to admit that a meditative experience is different than a VR one, there is no question that they mirror each other in a number of ways and that in the near future it seems exceedingly obvious that anyone will be able to enjoy a simulated “astral” trip without resorting either to prolonged meditation or ingesting psychedelic drugs. And because VR is so easy and (here is a conscious pun) mindless, it will go viral throughout the human population, just as radio and television and the Internet have done before.
In a very real sense, we are downloading the astral plane. Or, more precisely, our idealized versions of it.
It is truly an eye-popping experience to put on Google Cardboard (with your inserted iPhone), touch a button, and then find oneself enveloped in a game such as In Mind (produced by the Russian company Nival), where one travels in a 3-D brain mock-up setting off (and/or correcting) different firing neurons and getting deeper and deeper into the walls of fibrous architecture, while you sit still and your physical body goes nowhere. Add to this the very odd sensation of feeling as if you have no body and are encompassed in a completely different world where seeing 360 degrees is the norm.
This particular VR voyage reminded me of Paramahansa Yogananda’s first experience of cosmic consciousness where he wrote,
“My body became immovably rooted; breath was drawn out of my lungs as if by some huge magnet. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage, and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body, but embraced the circumambient atoms. People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my own remote periphery. The roots of plants and trees appeared through a dim transparency of the soil; I discerned the inward flow of their sap.
VR is astral travel for nerds. Imagine what this technology is going to look and feel like in a decade? We will live so deeply inside these VR realms that telling the difference between what is real and simulated will increasingly blur to the point of meaninglessness.
This is not hype, since what I glimpsed was quite literally a cardboard rendition of a future VR which will be exponentially far beyond anything we can presently imagine. And it is not a distant future since in 2016 the market will be flooded with a whole of series VR products, ranging from Oculus Rift to Sony PlayStation VR to HTC Vive to Samsung Gear VR to Microsoft HoloLens to FOVE VR to Zeiss VR One to Avegant Glyph to Razer OSVR to Archos VR Headset to Freefly VR headset.
Ken Wilber’s subtle realm, even if merely a replica of what he envisioned, is coming to a store near you.
Keeping with my Wilber analogies and metaphors, I can well imagine Ken arguing that VR and its attendant products is a sort of “Atman” project, where instead of actual higher order realization of the subtle realm (which involves tremendous hard work and personal transformation), we create a mechanical substitute for it, mistaking the simulacra for the real deal.
This may or may not be true, but I do think Wilber’s understanding of the subtle realm as the next leap in our evolutionary journey (even if the actual technology behind it is the opposite of what he prophesized) can serve as a very useful roadmap of what virtual worlds lie in store for us.
I have no doubt that with VR we will soon be witnessing an informational tsunami, the likes of which will swamp everything—from how we educate to how we doctor to how we entertain.
If consciousness evolved as a virtual simulator to help us better insource varying survival strategies before outsourcing them, we can readily see that humans have now progressed to the point where we can actualize our imaginings in a real world.
Simply put, our technology has finally caught up with our dreams so that we can consciously inhabit what we could only before imagine.
We are on the threshold of replacing our spiritual Atman Project with an electromagnetically gifted Avatar Project, where arduous meditational practices are replaced with supremely easy VR headsets so that we can transcend the limits of our physical bodies and fly unencumbered in mental wonderlands.
Aldous Huxley was correct when he predicted that we would enter a Brave New World, but it is a different kind of Soma we will daily ingest than the one he anticipated. The drug of the future is virtual and it is information without boundaries.